Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

Ferdinand Magellan Over The Edge of the World
Tales of Ferdinand Magellan in Over the Edge of the World.

Time to revisit a few of our book reviews from 2015 as some of them were rubbish. Laurence Bergeen’s riveting Over the Edge of the World is a fine place to start! This historical account of Ferdinand Magellan’s daring voyage across the world in search of fame and fortune is a perfect encapsulation of humanity at its finest (and absolute worst).

500 years ago, spices were hot property. Stashing up on a bounty of these would ensure a successful voyage met with a life of luxury. In 1519, Portuguese explorer Magellan led a five ship voyage from Spain – there were 260 sailors making up the crew. The plan was to reach the Spice Islands (Moluccas – an archipelago in Indonesia), claim a bounty of spices, and return to Spain to claim riches, glory, and a historic circumnavigation. Was it all plain sailing?

Over the Edge of the World

During Magellan’s day, the widespread belief was the world was round. Science had hit a level where human understanding made it pretty clear. But there were still endless unknowns about the planet, so suspicion and uncertainty were commonplace. Being a sailor was the equivalent of being an astronaut now, except not at all well paid and fraught with endless dangers.

So when Magellan figured crossing the Pacific Ocean would take a week, but it ended up lasting three months, that fact highlights the sort of challenges these men were up against. Prior to that hellish episode, Magellan had already fended off a mutiny from outraged Spanish captains, the full on ravages of scurvy, and starvation took – all of it took its toll. In the subsequent years, the crew would face even more chaos: a stranding, war, further scurvy, more acrimonious infighting, religious genocide, and captivity.

Eventually, after three tortuous years, and with only 18 bedraggled crew members left alive, one knackered ship pulled into port in Spain. This did, in an iconic moment, complete the first circumnavigation. The voyage also marked the discovery of what was dubbed the Magellan Strait, which proved mighty useful for trading routes during the Age of Discovery. Magellan was eventually praised by NASA for his seamanship, although Juan Sebastian Elcano deserves top honours (more on this below).

Who we have to thank for this story is Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta. He kept a remarkable and detailed diary of the three year expedition and (luckily for us) somehow survived the utter mayhem. He wrote a book about the journey, but it wasn’t fully published until hundreds of years later. Also, sadly, the original copy has been long lost. But what is left is a stunning record for posterity – his dairy. It details an unbelievable voyage that cost hundreds of lives in the name of spices.

Bergreen’s writing style is excellent – impartial, knowledgeable; almost as if he was there! There’s a sense of knowing, but also elements of humour. We can’t help but see the absurd black humour in the chaos of the situation. Bergreen dissects Magellan’s various motives, painting a pained picture of a difficult, but brilliant, navigator who triggered off this legendary voyage. After reading this one, you’ll never look a black pepper mill the same way again.

Magellan

For a quick glance over what exactly these men went through (some prep here – it was a Hell of a lot and just learning about it is exhausting), here we have a video. It’s educational, fun, and a drops out a vast amount of details. But the key elements remain of Magellan’s insane journey. Somehow, barely, a few men came out of the other side and completed a historic circumnavigation. For them? A place in the history books.

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